Closets and Classrooms: Sampling

I’ve always been more interested in the findings of studies than in the methods, but I can’t in good conscience neglect methods forever. So let’s talk about sampling, shall we?


I know hard science folks tend to favor random sampling, but with studies like mine, that just isn’t feasible. I can’t compile a list of every queer K-12 teacher between Williamsburg and Richmond and generate random numbers until I have enough people to interview. And frankly, even if I could, the odds that those individuals would agree to be interviewed aren’t great. I’m asking people to trust me with extremely sensitive details about their careers and personal lives. Most people wouldn’t be willing to doing that with a complete stranger.


This is where snowball sampling comes in. Back when I first started thinking about this project, I did a pilot interview with a teacher of mine from high school who I have stayed fairly close with. During her interview, she mentioned Jacob, a high school chorus teacher, who she believed might be interested in being interviewed. I talked to Jacob and, in addition to agreeing to an interview himself, he suggested that I talk to Olivia, a middle school band teacher, as well.


This is how much of my sampling went. I would talk to someone I knew who would then put me in touch with someone they knew who might be willing to participate in the study, which could then lead to other interviewees as well. Having these initial points of contact was invaluable to my study. Their ability to vouch for me to possible interviewees in their social network, assuring them that I could be trusted to keep their information confidential and that I wasn’t doing this to gawk or judge, is the only reason I have a study at all.


The main critique people have regarding snowball sampling is that it does not yield generalizable data. But I firmly believe that “not generalizable” is not inherently “not good.” The interviews I’ve conducted for this study delve into the details of real people’s lives. And yes, these experiences can’t be assumed to be universal to all queer teachers. But they’re still experiences that deserve to be acknowledged and understood, even if just for the sake of the individuals’ who experienced them.


  1. lcwaddill says:

    Hi Melissa, this topic seems really interesting, and I just went to read your Abstract blog post to understand it better. I’m a humanities person myself, so I don’t have much experience with sampling and was curious to hear your approach. It certainly seems that in a topic so private snowball sampling is best, but I’m curious about what personal reservations you have about the method.
    I think you justified it well in your last paragraph, but I’m not sure if you’ve experienced any inconveniences from snowball sampling. For example, from the few people you mentioned, you had one middle and two high school teachers, and two were music teachers of some sort. I’m wondering if your interviews all tend to be people of similar teaching backgrounds or age groups, since people (I imagine) would be most likely to recommend colleagues or peers they know from such overlapping environments. Have you been able to interview any elementary school teachers? Or someone teaching in a religious school perhaps? For instance, I know Walsingham is a nearby PK-12 Catholic school, so it might be an especially difficult environment for LGBTIQ educators. Of course, maybe for that reason there aren’t many or any queer people working at such a place, so that would naturally restrict your research. Hopefully you’ve been able to achieve the scope of research that you wanted to, and I’m interested to see where this leads. It seems like the final product is an oral history of LGBTIQ teachers’ experiences, but I’m wondering how that will be shared. Is it all anonymous? Is there any sort of community you aim to foster by connecting the various people you’ve interviewed who are several “snowballs” apart?

  2. cemaciashentze says:

    Hi Melissa,
    I loved reading about your sampling technique! I recognize how difficult it is to access certain populations especially when sexual orientation comes into play. How many interviews are you going to be conducting for the study? Your results may be able to be “more” generablizable the larger the sample.

Speak Your Mind